No, a ban on mobile phones is not a form of collective punishment

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In my first year of teaching, I took a Year 9 science class. They were a really great bunch of kids but they were also very sociable. When students are carrying out a science practical, particularly if you are a new teacher, it’s sometimes necessary to quickly stop the class and give an additional instruction. I found it hard to get their attention.

So I brought a stopclock to class to measure the time between my first request and gaining the attention of the class. If the class took place before break, lunch or the end of the day, I would keep the whole class back for an equivalent amount of time.

I think an experienced teacher had suggested it but it never sat well with me because it was a form of collective punishment. Students who had stopped and listened as soon as I asked were being kept back with the ones who ignored me to keep chatting. And that was unfair.

Soon, my school introduced a new, whole-school behaviour policy. For the first time, I was given training in basic classroom management techniques. The training combined with the policy meant that I never had to use collective punishment again and I didn’t look back. In The Truth about Teaching, my book for new teachers, I describe effective classroom management strategies and advise against collective punishment.

So I am inclined to agree with a call in today’s The Age for a ban on collective punishment and would add that schools also need consistent policies on behaviour and teachers need training in effective classroom management techniques.

However, there is a revealing aside in the article. Jonathon Sargeant, a senior lecturer in inclusive education and classroom management at the Australian Catholic University, uses it as a vehicle to both criticise sanctions more generally and to describe Victoria’s upcoming mobile phone ban as collective punishment.

The fact that education lecturers tend to be against any kind of sanction, no matter how fair or mild, coupled with the almost universal use of sanctions in the real-world of schools illustrates the ideology-practice gap between university education departments and schools. This prevents effective training in classroom management and better research into how schools can effectively manage behaviour.

The idea that a mobile phone ban is a form of collective punishment is absurd. It’s like suggesting that a suburban speed limit of 50 kph is a form of collective punishment or a ban on drinking alcohol in a public space is a form of collective punishment.

Yet it is precisely this kind of concept creep that we see again and again in education discussions. It takes legitimate concern over one issue and attempts to channel this against a quite different issue in order to further some ideological agenda.

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